By John Spindler, director of product management at TE Connectivity
The advent of 4G network technologies such as LTE promises a world where every mobile user can access a multi-megabit network everywhere. Augmented reality (AR) has captured a lot of attention lately with its notion of video-enabled glasses, mirrors, newspapers, and even contact lenses, but we have a lot of work to do on our mobile network infrastructure to offer the coverage and capacity that will be required for this technology to work.
A new report from Juniper Research finds that by 2017 over 2.5 billion mobile AR applications per year will be downloaded to smartphones and tablets. These apps will allow, for example, consumers to virtually try on items of clothing using their mobile phone. In another example, AR could allow shoppers to see more information on a product simply by pointing their phone's camera at it.
Up to the task?But for AR to work properly, the network must be up to the task. LTE technology provides the bandwidth to support AR applications, but mobile operators must find ways to deploy it so LTE coverage and capacity are ubiquitous both indoors and out, wherever AR applications are demanded. In considering a solution, there are both technical and practical challenges that must be overcome.
Coverage is the first thing to consider. Higher licensed mobile frequencies are not as effective at penetrating buildings from the external, macro networks now operated by cellular providers, whereas fully penetrating a building with a lower band (<1GHz) signal is relatively easy.
It is much more problematic to drive a signal further than three to six metres inside a building when the signal transmits at 2.1GHz or higher, for example, and the further away you are from the antenna source, the harder your device works to use available network capacity, causing delay and trouble even accessing high capacity applications.
Capacity is what AR relies heavily on; video display and database transaction technologies will require orders of magnitude more bandwidth than can be delivered in yesterday's 3G networks. And unlike 3G networks, where perhaps 40% of users had a smartphone, AR devices will be used by nearly everyone, further exacerbating the capacity problem.
Ease and cost of deployment means the network infrastructure must be simple and cost effective to deploy, or else carriers will resist bringing services using AR to market, or the speed of network rollout will be unacceptable to users.
Scalability is also an issue, as the infrastructure should easily scale to cover new service areas, support evolution for even higher capacity, and adapt to future implementations of wireless standards.
And finally, flexibility; the solution should support legacy technologies to simplify service migration and carrier network management.
Meeting challengesTo meet these challenges, mobile operators must move from today's macro-dominated mobile network infrastructure to a heterogeneous micro-network model. In this model, macro network base stations will be supplemented by smaller base stations and distributed antenna aystems (DAS) to aggregate all services and reach further in to the network.
Heterogeneous micro networks will bring strong coverage and high network capacity to areas where macro systems don't reach, will be far more efficient for delivering new services, and for managing network migration as user uptake changes occur. Plus, they can do this with the economics and flexibility required for profitable services.
Deploying small base stations with DAS subdivides today's macro cells into many more micro cells. This network model provides many benefits, including ubiquitous coverage that can be delivered most effectively with pico cells and DAS. These systems can easily propagate signals inside buildings and in outdoor areas that aren't being adequately served by macro towers, and using smaller cells allows each cell to have much greater network capacity.
Also, small base stations and DAS require far less space and power than macro cells and may be deployed much more quickly because they can more easily meet strict zoning requirements. By supplementing base stations with DAS, carriers can maximise frequency reuse and simplify network management.
Additionally, a range of base station sizes and capabilities, combined with multiple DAS options, makes it possible to scale the network easily as coverage and capacity demands change over time.
Small base stations can be built to support any new or legacy frequency and DAS can propagate any signal, so these technologies allow carriers to deliver 2G or 3G frequencies with greater coverage and capacity while migrating easily to 4G or future services.
Mobile network services are inexorably moving toward greater usage of higher bandwidth in more places, and AR will accelerate this trend. Mobile network operators have already seen a trend, over the years, toward ever-smaller macro cells. Micro cellular architecture simply extends this practice to the next logical level, one that will be absolutely necessary to support the universal coverage and high bandwidth required in a world of augmented reality.
TE Connectivity designs and manufactures approximately 500,000 products that connect and protect the flow of power and data inside the products that touch every aspect of our lives.